Angkor Wat – the Jewel of Cambodia

The day was already warm as we made our way along the edge of the 200m wide moat which surrounds the temple complex. We are about to enter Angkor Wat, the largest and most iconic temple complex in Cambodia. In many ways it has come to symbolise Cambodia – it is the centrepiece of the Cambodian flag, and is found on the local currency. It is even on the side of the Angkor Balloon – a tethered helium balloon used to give visitors an overview from 100m up, although sadly, it wasn’t flying the day we went due to the monsoonal weather.

Angkor balloon


One of the striking things about Angkor Wat is the control of water through large-scale hydrological works around the complex. The ponds or moat around the Angkor temple complex is over 200m wide and was designed to reduce local flooding in the wet season. The scale of the hydrological works has to be seen to be believed, and considering this would have been dug by hand, it is very impressive indeed.

Angkor Wat

Today the main causeway is becoming fragile from the hundreds of thousands of annual visitors, so we are directed towards a floating causeway or pontoon bridge (see on the right in the photo above). It feels a little like walking on a bouncing castle, but it is stable, new and well maintained.

But not all of the ‘King’s swimming pool’ as the locals call it, remains in good repair – and there is evidence that its effectiveness decreased over centuries as it silted up, and was not regularly maintained even in its heyday. Today the locals and tourists use it as a picnic spot, and a cool place to watch the sunset.

Angkor Wat

You first see the familiar beehive cupolas after you pass through the gates, and realise that this is a very large complex with many buildings, each with their attractions. This view is from one of the side temples, and is out of the way of the main crowds that head straight down the main causeway toward the iconic temple.

Angkor Wat

As I came closer I found a quiet spot to take in the view

Angkor Wat

Sometimes a sketch is the best way to understand a place, as you take time to observe, unlike the busloads of tourists that try to cram in this and three other temples into one day (!). Although this sketch was done from a photo afterwards, I did sketch in many of the temples during this visit.

Angkor Wat

But there is so much to take in. One aspect for which Angkor Wat is particularly known, is the extensive wall carvings depicting scenes from King Suryavarman II’s life and from the sacred Hindu texts of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The depictions of war elephants and sophisticated chariots, as well as infantry each with their individual expressions, is worth a visit just for this.

The temple was dedicated by Suryavarman II to the Hindu god Vishnu, and there are gruesome depictions of tortures inflicted upon sinners in no less than 32 specialised hells. There are also depictions of the birth of the universe achieved through the Churning of the Ocean of Milk – the Earth is said to have been created from the resulting curd. It gives a whole new perspective on the moon being a piece of cheese!

Angkor Wat

The windows are barred with stone balusters shaped in the form of prayer wheels – they are worn quite smooth in places, from countless hands running along them. They also make great silhouettes against the glare of the outside gardens.

Angkor Wat

The buildings and corridors are clearly formed from corbelled arches, and you can see how the final key-stones keep the roof in place. It evidently works as most of these buildings have survived relatively intact for centuries.

Angkor Wat

A special meeting

I was privileged to meet these two Buddhist monks.They spoke quite good English, so  I asked if they were from the temple here, and they said they had come from another temple about 100kms away, to be here on a holy day. They have been monks for 18 years and they had a wonderful calm presence to them. I told them about my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and they seemed surprised that modern Westerners would undertake such a journey on foot. They were relaxed and joked around a little. I asked if they would mind having their photo taken, and they readily agreed – it is always polite to ask. As they sat, I moved up the nearby steps to take a different angle. I thanked them for talking with me and took my leave of them.

Angkor Wat

The central temple was closed to tourists for a Cambodian Hindu holy day (Pchum Ben – Ancestors Day), so we couldn’t get to the highest point, but of course, as a working temple, it is important to respect the place and its function. As someone once said: “Buddha (or Vishnu) is not a garden decoration.”

Angkor Wat

The processional corridors and cloisters are impressive. Of course, even the officials need to look after their feet sometimes…

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is also a popular place for film-makers and for professional fashion photographic shoots. This was in one of the side temples – the Southern pavilion.

Angkor Wat

And of course, I had to get the ‘postcard’ shot – though it took a bit of doing. I initially tried to follow the lesser path to one side of the temple complex, but found the path flooded and quite muddy. So with wet feet, I headed back around and onto the main causeway, and then detoured to one of the side temples. Fortunately, I had remembered to bring a neutral density filter, as well as a circular polariser and, by holding the camera firmly against a wall I was able to get this shot. I was fortunate that the wind had died down ahead of the approaching rain.

Angkor Wat

Once our friends had finished their sketches, we took our leave, knowing there is so much more to see here.

So, from a 12th century king who marshalled the control of water, to create a great civilisation, and who brought prosperity to his kingdom by regulating the worst ravages of the monsoon, to a temple dedicated to Vishnu, who churned the great Ocean of Milk to bring forth the Earth from the star-stuff of Space, we, now, in the 21st century are able to gaze on these wonders. It is worth taking the time, not just to see the buildings, but to see the system that made it possible, and gain a new respect for these achievements done without mechanisation, as we retreat back to our airconditioned hotel room, hoping for a strong wifi signal.

About Angkor Wat

The complex was built by King Suryavaman II in the first half of the 12th century. The temple complex, including the moats, covers an area of more than two square kilometres. As part of the King’s capital city, there is evidence of a major population centre throughout the surrounding area. This was enabled by the large Barays or reservoirs that mitigated the impact of the monsoonal variations in water level, and allowed for sustained irrigated agriculture through a sophisticated system of canals and channels. Not bad when you consider that Britain was still in the iron age, and Britain was seeing the end of Saxon rule. By the 13th century, the vast water management system covered an area of over 1000 square kilometres.

The Khmer rulers reigned here until the 15th century, leaving behind an amazing legacy of temples built to house Hindu and Buddhist divinities.

At a glance

Date: First half of the 12th century (around 1150)
King: Suryavarman II
Cult: Hindu (Vishnu)
Best seen: early morning or lunchtime when the tourist crowds are thinner. Also, try walking around away from the South Gate via the side temples once you cross the moat from the ticket control.
Do not miss: the carved relief panels – some of the best decorations in all the Khmer temples, and the view of the temple from the reflecting pools
Cost: One day pass is USD $37, three day pass is USD $62 and a seven day pass (recommended) is USD$72. The pass gets you into almost all the temples, not just Angkor Wat.
Location: around 7km north of Siem Ream city.



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Cambodia – Ta Prohm: An Angkor treasure

Ta Prohm emerged from the Cambodian forest about an hour’s drive out of Siem Reap, and immediately we knew it was special. Towering trees sprawled protectively over the ancient temple ruins. Groundwater lay all around from the recent monsoonal rains. It looked like a scene from a movie, and it was easy to have visions of being an Indiana Jones or a Lara Croft intent on securing some ancient treasure. But what really struck me, was that this complex of buildings came from the hands of highly skilled architects within a well-resourced advanced society. I found a spot out of the way of the tour groups, behind what had once been a monastery library, and began sketching.

Just a year before Saladin captured Jerusalem from the Crusaders, this monastery complex was built and dedicated by King Jayavarman VII near Angkor in honour of his mother. It was to become an important pilgrimage site. The year was 1186, and Jayavarman was on an unprecedented building spree.

He recognised that a united country needed to be a connected country. But the land he inherited was subject to flooding in the wet season, and despite Angkor Wat and the royal palace being above the high water mark of the inland sea known as the Tonle Sap, it was difficult to maintain year-round communication.

Ta Prohm

To facilitate the communication of people and administration (including taxes/tributes), he built over 2,000 km of roads above the high-water level, and set up rest houses – every 15kms (one day’s walk), along with hospitals equipped to minister to the sick. The hospitals had shrines made in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. The sanctuaries of the rest houses may correspond to some of the buildings found within the major temple sites, such as Ta Prohm.

Ta Prohm

They are extraordinary structures, built with corbel-vaulted roofs capable of supporting heavy stone coverings.

Ta Prohm

The ones in Ta Prohm were deliberately left largely as they were found, with great Spong trees and their parasitic strangling ficus (fig) which gradually encapsulates the tree and kills it. The ruins, symbiotically interwoven with the majestic trees – the age-old struggle between nature and culture – made it the perfect setting for an epic movie adventure. More recently, substantial restoration work has been undertaken by an international partnership through UNESCO. Nevertheless, you can still locate recognisable parts of the site as seen in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. The movie mythologises the role of amateur and dilettante archaeologists hoping to fill the museums of Europe with strange and exotic artefacts.

Ta Prohm

For me, the reality was far more interesting than any swash-buckling movie adventure could be. The temples and associated monastery tell a story of devout Buddhists. The wall carvings included detailed dancers and scenes from Buddha’s life. During the period of the Hindu reaction, some panels depicting Buddha were mistaken for a king in his palace, and so were spared erasure.

Ta Prohm was one of the largest monastic complexes in the Kingdom, with quarters for more than ninety monks. One of the devotional statues was captured by one of the many great tree roots.

Ta Prohm

Much of what we know of early Khmer culture came from the travel reports of Zhiou Daguan a member of a Chinese diplomatic delegation in 1296. He was sent by the Yuans, a Mongol dynasty established by Kublai Khan. The document that resulted gave a detailed snapshot of life in the Angkor kingdom at the end of the C13th.

Western accounts began to surface in the 1500s by Portuguese and Spanish missionaries of an ancient city in the jungles of Cambodia. The stories relate how king Ang Chan stumbled across the Angkor ruins – already covered by dense vegetation – while out hunting wild elephants in the forest.

Then in the 1860s research began in earnest with a French scientific expedition to see if the Mekong was navigable, and they took a detour to Angkor, making an extensive survey.

I was glad I started with this temple, and built up to the larger ones as I started to put together a picture in my own mind of how these sites relate to each other, and how this was indeed a civilisation that was built on advanced hydrography.But more on that in a later post…

Ta Prohm


In Brief:

Country: Kingdom of Cambodia
Language: Khmer
Currency: Riel (but almost everything is done in $US)
International phone code +885
Where I stayed: Central Suite Residence, Siem Reap
Getting there: direct flights are available to Siem Reap International Airport from Bangkok, KL or Singapore.
What to see: Ancient temples, including Angkor Wat, and don’t forget the Angkor National Museum.

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Kuching: Why your travel memories should be sketchy

Kuching in the state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo is one of Malaysia’s hidden gems. While it’s not a major transport hub, like Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, it is well worth seeing – and as I was to find out, it is worth seeing through a sketchbook. You see, I was there as part of the Urban Sketchers AsiaLink meetup. For those who may not have encountered them, the Urban Sketchers movement has around 140,000 members worldwide, and each country has their own groups. Their aim is “to see the world, one sketch at a time”. And it is open to all ages and skill levels – which is just as well, as I consider myself pretty much a novice at drawing.

So why should a novice sketcher take a sketchbook and pencils to an international meet-up of sketchers? I’ll let you into a secret – it’s not about the drawing. It is all about the looking. Just as using a camera has taught me to see the world in a particular way, sketching takes this to a whole other level. A photograph might take a couple of minutes to get a good composition and an appreciation of some elements of the subject, but sketching means you are looking in detail at the subject for perhaps an hour or two. Photography has taught me to see, sketching has taught me to see deeper. For example, when I photographed the Kuching Legislative Assembly building (Parliament House), I completely failed to notice the pink inner wall behind the outer pillars. Yet when I sat to sketch it, I found myself taking in that detail. And yes the sketch is pretty rough, but I gained a new appreciation for the building.

Legislative Assembly Building, Kuching

If I could miss something as obvious as the colour of the wall, what else do we miss when we stop for a quick ‘selfie’? Sometimes we see more by seeing less. By that I mean, it is sometimes better to slow down, see fewer sites in more detail, and in the process see more and understand more about those things we do see.

Kuching has a vibrant art scene, reflected in the brilliant and creative wall murals. I love how they’ve incorporated a real wheelbarrow for this barrow of monkeys 🙂

wall mural, Kuching

The word ‘Kuching’ is the Malay word for ‘cat’ so the cat theme permeates the town, including a Cat Museum filled with cat-themed sculptures and popular culture references to cats.

And just next to the James Brooke Cafe and Bistro there is a wonderful cat sculpture – which is itself a playground for some of the local cats

cat sculpture Kuching

We ate at the bistro several times – great food and wonderful ambience looking out over the river. Here is the view from our table in the evening

View from James Brooke Bistro

The name James Brooke comes up frequently in Kuching – it seems he was quite a character. Born in India to British parents, briefly educated in England, he returned to India with the Bengal Army. He was wounded in Burma during the uprising, subsequently resigning his commission. With a £30,000 inheritance, he bought a 142-ton schooner – The Royalist – and set off to make his fortune in the Malay Archipelago. The timing was fortunate, just in time to use his ship to help crush a rebellion against the Sultan of Brunei, who in his gratitude, made him Rajah of Sarawak. So James Brooke became the first white Rajah of Sarawak – where he ruled until his death.

The historic Brooke Dockyard, begun in 1907 and completed in 1912 – the year the Titanic sunk – was important in keeping the Rajah’s boats in good repair. The dry dock and associated engineering works are still in use today. On the sketch-walk with the Kuching Urban Sketchers, we were given some limited access to the dock, which is normally closed to visitors.

Brooke Dockyard, Kuching

A group of us hired a traditional Sampan/Tambang to take us up the river, from which we could see the vibrant fishing industry and local fishing villages along the river bank. It was quite something to see the jungle reach down to the river so close to the town. Our boat trip took us up the river some distance, and we were taken to sample the delights of a traditional Sarawak cake shop. The cakes were delicious, though some appeared to be a triumph of chemistry over nature…

Sarawak cakes

I think the blue and yellow ones were called ‘Michael Jackson’ cakes. We saw variations of these all over Kuching.

fishing village kuching

Later we were taken on a sketch-walk through a fishing village on the opposite bank, and on to Fort Margherita built in 1879 – named for James Brooke’s wife. The people live simply, growing vegetables in the village garden and fishing on the river. I don’t know how they reacted to the sudden arrival of some 30 sketchers, but the children happily pointed out which houses they lived in, and took great interest in the drawings.

fisherman, Kuching

Fort Margherita was built to protect the town from pirates – which plagued the reign of James Brooke and his dynasty. It was subsequently used as a police station. In 1971, it was handed over to the local government and is now a museum – well worth a visit. There is also a wonderful view over the river and the town of Kuching.

Fort Margherita, Kuching

A further sketch-walk along India Street provided a colourful shopping experience along the shop-houses and beneath a spectacular modern glass shade

India Street, Kuching

But for me, the charm lay in the traditional shop-houses and the range of goods, both modern and traditional available. It is a feast for the senses – literally – as the smell of spices mingles with that of polished timber, and bright colours and the sound of motorbikes and people and bustle. It is a vibrant town.

India Street

And of course, you are never too far from the wet market where you can buy fresh fish caught that morning and brought in by small boat and barrow.

fish market, Kuching

It was great to see the place through the eyes of the locals – they know the best eating places for Laksa and satays, and it was pretty special being led on sketch-walks through different parts of the town, with details large and small being pointed out. And so we got to see the place through the eyes of those who draw it, and in the process, learned to see with fresh eyes, and with greater depth than we would ever have done if we had gone as a tourist, rather than as a sketcher.

Do you have sketchy memories? Why not contact the Urban Sketchers in your local community and see for yourself the delights of seeing a place through your own sketchbook!

Urban Sketchers in Kuching

Practicalities: Direct flights are available from Singapore and KL. Bring tropical strength (DEET) mosquito repellant, and dress for heat and humidity. Currency is the Malaysian Ringgit (RM). Power is 230V with English power sockets. Language: Malay, though English is widely spoken. Dialling code is +60.

Things to do: Visit the textiles museum, the Cat Museum, the Chinese Kuching museum, see Orangutans (means humans of the forest) at the Orangutan Sanctuary, take a Sampan/Tamban ride up the river, visit Fort Margherita.

Favourite foods: Laksa, Satay.

I stayed at the Hilton Kuching – but have no affiliation with them and received no free benefits from any of the places or groups mentioned in this post.

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